A two-time recipient of the NIN Award, the top Serbian award for novel of the year, this novelist’s books rank top when it comes to readership numbers and are among the best Serbian novels translated to foreign languages. He’s spent just 20 months living outside of his home country and says that it’s not bad for a writer to have living in exile among their experiences, but that he ultimately realised he belongs here, that he needs to write here, to advocate for normalcy of behaviour here, because that’s an underdeveloped component in our country. And don’t label that patriotism
When it comes to awards received, readership figures achieved and book translations celebrated, Dragan Velikić (69) is among Serbia’s greatest and most successful authors. His works have been translated into around 20 languages and there are approximately 80 foreign editions of his works.
He was shortlisted for the NIN Award and entered the final with his first ever novel, Via Pula, before going on to repeat that feat five more times, only to win the NIN Award in 2008, when his work Ruski Prozor [The Russian Window] was declared Best Novel of 2007. And when he published his 2015 novel Islednik [The Investigator], the jury again awarded him with a NIN Award. He was the first ever recipient of the Donaustipendium, the Danube Scholarship, which is awarded by Austria and Hungary, and is a recipient of the Central European Literature Award, the Vilenica International Literary Prize and the City of Budapest Award for Literature. An honorary member of Hungary’s Széchenyi Academy of Letters and Arts, he writes about the cities where he’s lived, as he recognises within them what James Joyce called ‘street furniture’.
Although he was born in Belgrade, he grew up in Pula from the age of five. That was until he returned to Belgrade to study. He even recalls the move to Pula, by train; when he and father Vojislav, mother Ljubica and sister Jelena, two years his junior, took their seats aboard a train in the evening, with all their furniture and others things, and arrived in Pula the next morning. They had leased a train wagon that contained their things, but the train had a stop of around 40 minutes in Vinkovci, and that was enough for thieves to steal plenty of stuff. That was because father Vojislav hadn’t used a padlock to lock the wagon, counting on just a seal being sufficient.
I today have, or actually I’ve always had, an innate sense of justice and affection towards those who are destined to be sacrificial lambs
“I recall it as if I can see him now. My mother had been given a radio that was almost ivory white from a friend who went to America. It disappeared, as did many of our other belongings, so Dad initially only had his uniform to wear, until his suit had been tailored. I remember the moment we entered Pula, the train track that seems to disappear into the sea. Land’s end and the sea’s beginning. I later used that striking scene in my literature. If you come by land, Pula is at the end of the line. If you arrive by boat, it’s at the beginning. We spent a week staying at the Lipa Hotel, until we moved to the Villa Marija, which housed our flat. We arrived on the eve of 29th November, 1958, [29th November was Republic Day in the then Socialist Yugoslavia] the city was all draped in flags, pretty much deserted, festive, full of slogans written in Italian. I today have, or actually I’ve always had, an innate sense of justice and affection towards those who are destined to be sacrificial lambs
“I found the move to Pula easy. I immediately spoke in the ‘ijekavica’ dialect. Interestingly, a year ago one of my female friends who went to primary and secondary school with me reminded me of how I spoke ‘ekavica’ with my mother. I have no memory of that at all, but I believe I accepted that through inertia. One dialect in the house, and the other that everyone else speaks outside.”
The Velikić family also had pleasant living conditions during those years. Vojislav was a naval officer earning a decent salary, Ljubica was a teacher who considered it better to stay at home and raise her children. Dragan’s mother enriched him with numerous words of wisdom that he memorised during his childhood and later used in his novels. She was known for saying: ‘If you organise yourself well, everything is on your way’. And that marks the beginning of his novel The Russian Window. And The Investigator also includes her words: ‘You’re always relaxed at someone else’s expense, someone else pays for that’.
Whenever I come to Pula, my body experiences an adrenaline rush. The city has changed, but I walk through all those layers from the time of my early childhood, schooldays, adolescence
Summer would see the parents pack their children in their Fiat 500 Topolino and head to Serbia. Dragan’s maternal grandparents were wealthy landowners from Šabac, while his father’s parents lived in Sićevo. Vojislav retired early, when he was still very young, but continued working for the Jugolinija merchant fleet in Rijeka. He spent the last four years of his working life sailing for a German company thanks to his knowledge of the German language, which he’d learnt during his four years held captive in northern Germany:
“My father was a lieutenant in the Yugoslav Royal Navy, and he left Divulje [naval base in Croatia] to return home when Yugoslavia capitulated in 1941. He was captured and transferred, together with others, to some place in Bulgaria. The house where my grandfather lived sits beside the railway track, and when my father passed on a train on his way to internment in Germany, he threw his wallet with the emblem of a shark through a gap in the freight wagon and my grandfather found it! That’s how he found out his son was alive. Those prisoners were transferred from Bulgaria to Bremen. He was imprisoned at the camp. By day he worked on the estate with the rural folk, returning to the camp at night to sleep. After the war, he returned to our country.
“He was fortunate enough to work on a farm with a villager whose son was on the Eastern Front, who supplied him with cigarettes and was very attentive to him. They called him Ivan, though he never knew why. My father went to that village one day in the ‘70s, while he was working for the Germans. He found the lady of the house still alive, the old man had already passed away, and the following summer their children came to visit us. They also invited us to visit them, but I played music during the summer in those years, so I never went.”
Years passed, and Velikić was already a successful writer when the then culture senator of the City of Bremen, Hildegard Koineke, read some text written by Velikić and, delighted by it, invited him to spend two months as a guest of the City of Bremen.
“That’s a woman who boasted of the fact that Fassbinder had his first directing job at the theatre in Bremen that she managed. When I arrived in Bremen, she found the son of those who’d treated my father kindly and I spent a weekend as a guest of him and his wife. At one point he called a man, a Ukrainian who’d been imprisoned at the camp with my father and stayed in the city after the war. He turned on the speakerphone and asked him if he remembered that Serb, “Ivan”. The Ukrainian said that he remembered him well, particularly his polished boots!”
Velikić’s parents were among those people who were simply referred to as being honest folk. His mother came from a wealthy family, while his father’s side has been more loyal to the leftist ideal. A monument to Dragan’s uncle Dragomir, after whom he was named, stands in Sićevo. He was commander of the Sićevo Partizan detachment who was killed in 1943, on the very birthday of his brother, Dagan’s father. Their sister was also a Partizan fighter. Dragan was brought up to behave with decency both inside and out of the house, not to lie and not to brag about the things he has. His graduation trip to Paris could have been paid for in one go, but his mother decided to pay in installments, like most parents in the class. Why would the children need to know that Dragan’s parents have enough money to be able to pay for everything at once? It was better for them to behave like the majority of others.
“I today have, or actually I’ve always had, an innate sense of justice and affection towards those who are destined to be sacrificial lambs. I had great empathy for the ordinary people who left Pula after World War II, shipyard workers, Italians, who were expelled to the country of their ancestors. I found that terribly painful.”
He left Pula to begin his studies and remained in the city of his birth. However, Pula came to represent his great literary inspiration:
“Whenever I come to Pula, my body experiences an adrenaline rush. The city has naturally changed, but I walk through all those layers that I recall from the time of my early childhood, schooldays, adolescence… Also inscribed is the Pula that I created in my books. My Pula is actually a large film studio, Cinecittà, where I set the majority of my novels. I certainly wouldn’t use that city in the way I use it in my literature if I lived there today.”
Via Pula achieved fantastic success, with three editions and a NIN Award shortlist… That’s when I said to myself – that’s me. I’m a writer. After that, it became necessary to wait for a NIN Award
It was somehow destined that the boy who “guzzled” books would become a writer. His parents were subscribed to the famous edition “A Hundred Books of Serbian Literature”, published by the Serbian Literary Association, which was his mother read first, and then he also read. He was only permitted to take three books from the “Slavko Grubiša” pioneer house, but that wasn’t enough for him, as he would have to come two days later to return those books and borrow new ones:
“I was slightly over 12 years old when I wrote a novel under the great influence of Ivan Kušan, or rather his novel Koko and His Company. The novel was called Krađa [Theft] and on it is displayed the date of 21st March, 1966. I then started writing another novel during the summer holidays, Doživljaji kapetana Lingarda [The Experiences of Captain Lingard], but I never finished it. I started becoming interested in music and indulged in it completely. I played piano and electric organ. Rock bands from across Yugoslavia came to Pula. It was also at the 3rd ‘Gimnazija’ High School that I met Branko Marušić Čutura, a legend of Yugoslav rock who passed away last year. It was then that I spent an evening jamming a little with his band, The Gentlemen. I told him that I would be coming to Belgrade to study a year later, and he gave me his address: Kosovska 39. And when I enrolled in world literature studies, I went to visit him and started performing with him. I was in various groups – Moira, the Silhouettes, Pop Machine – I performed on a two-month tour for the support band of Zdravko Čolić…
While I was with The Silhouettes, we were meant to spend a year playing at American clubs in Germany. Unfortunately, that deal fell through at the last minute. I even received my parents consent to take a one-year hiatus from college, but that didn’t happen. The summer arrived, I knew there would lot of stalls by the sea, and I set aside my vocals to go to Canada, sell instruments and abandon playing music.
The years passed, and one evening I found myself sitting in a large group at Club KPZ (Cultural and Educational Community), which also included Radio Belgrade journalist Ljubica Urošević. I spent the whole time speaking from my prespective as a writer, criticising everything as a writer, and I hadn’t actually written anything. And Ljubica asked me at one point on whose behalf I was speaking. I sat down the next day and wrote a story that I took to David Albahari at Literary Word. He published it and asked me if I had more stories, I lied that I had and he suggested that I submit them to the Matica Srpska contest in September. I was 29 at the time. Albahari’s offer had come in the spring, and that summer I, like Hemingway, lowered the blinds in the lower apartment of our summer house and wrote story after story. I used the title The Wrong Move, after the Wim Wenders film. The Matica Srpska jury included Florika Štefan, Ivan Lalić and Radmila Gikić. I passed and my first book of stories was published. When I read that book, I realised that I was a better writer than I’d presented myself as being in that work.”
It was two years later that Dragan published his second book of stories, Staklena bašta [The Greenhouse], and again he was left with the same feeling – that he could do better. He was then employed at the City Library. He decided to write a novel about Pula, and for that to be the book in which he showed exactly what he is. He spent two years writing that novel, Via Pula, only to realise when he finished it that he still wasn’t satisfied at all and that he’d have to start again from scratch. To smash and grind that book, to upheave the story, and that again took time. When it was finally published, Via Pula achieved fantastic success, with three editions and a NIN Award shortlist:
If there’s a country where a writer, an artist, is valued to do anything, then that’s Austria. And so it was that the red carpet followed me in Vienna. As ambassador there, I met a world with a different DNA
“And that’s when I said to myself – that’s me. I’m a writer. After that, it became necessary to wait for a NIN Award. Specifically, I knew that it would come to me, and that happened with The Russian window. It could have come earlier, but I nonetheless awaited it. However, when I received my second NIN Award, for The Investigator, that was really a special feeling. Although I’d felt when I wrote it that this would also be a book for those who aren’t typical readers, it simply sticks to you. I was invited in November to Albania for a major promotion of The Investigator. I saw what kind of cover they’d made for the book, and it was wondrous!”
Apart from the large number of publishers around the world that translate and publish his books, in recent years – thanks to great publisher Agullo Editions from Bordeaux – Dragan’s works have had a strong presence on the French market. He had a prime-time slot at the festival in Montpellier, while an announcement of his story about exile, The Russian Window, published in French this February, appeared on the front page of L’Monde. The Investigator also made the shortlist for the Jean Monnet Prize. And as the crowning glory of it all, France’s largest publisher of paperback editions, Le Livre de Poche, bought the rights to publish a paperback edition of The Investigator from December.
Dragan was at the 2005 Pula Book Fair when he found himself being persistently called by someone from an unknown number. And he just as persistently cut them off until finally answering upon his return to Belgrade. It turned out to have been Vuk Drašković, calling in his then capacity as foreign minister. He offered Dragan the post of ambassador in Vienna, to 55 which he responded by asking for two weeks to think it over. He only then called and turned down the offer. Drašković called again two weeks later, wished him a Merry Christmas, and invited him for talks once again, insisting that he should still accept the original offer. Drašković needed a while to persuade him, until opening a bottle of whisky to toast Dragan’s departure to Vienna, where he would spend four and a half years (2005-2009).
“I came to a city with which I was very familiar, having lived there for a while, and where I knew people. On one occasion, I was at the birthday celebration of Milo Dor. Heinz Fischer was also there and Milo introduced me to him. Fischer then held a high position in the Austrian Parliament. I’d met Austrican Vice-Chancellor Erhard Busek when he’d served as minister of education. If there’s a country where a writer, an artist, is valued to do anything, then that would be Austria. And so it was that the red carpet followed me in Vienna. There I met a world with a different DNA. I haven’t written about it, and I don’t think I will, but it’s true that I met another world. Vienna is a mining site for a diplomat, especially if you are responsible, and I am, I’m a swat, because I had a name in that city and I daren’t embarrass myself.”
Dragan has spoken and written many times about the negative qualities of his nation, about the poor moves of the government, making it clear that he was born in the wrong place, but that he never wanted to switch that place for another; he did not want to be a writer in exile.
You can’t take the time of exile of Kundera, Gombrowicz and similar greats and use that to make an app called “writer in exile”
“I was always annoyed that being in exile was viewed as a quality in and of itself. Be Brodsky, then you can be in exile wherever you like. You can’t take the time of exile of Kundera, Gombrowicz and similar greats and use that to make an app called “writer in exile”. That’s how you devise a code that becomes more personal than the actually personality.
“During the period of the bombing, I was initially in Budapest, then in Vienna and Munich, and was absent from the country for 20 months. It was then that I realised all my favourite writers had been writers in exile: Crnjanski, Singer, Nabokov, Gazdanov, Bunin… it’s not bad for a writer to have living in exile among their experiences, but I realised that I belong here, that I need to write here, to advocate for normalcy of behaviour here, because that’s an underdeveloped component in our country. And I don’t label that patriotism.
A patriot is anyone who is normal, provided they maintain that normalcy, and don’t make peace with hordes of fans that include killers. That’s why my NIN columns are important to me, because what I write and advocate for maintains my mental hygiene.”
Dragan has spent more than 20 years living with playwright and theatre critic Aleksandra Sanja Glovacki. They have been married for the last three years. He has a son from his first marriage, Vid, while Sanja has two daughters, Marija and Teodora. It’s easy to conclude that the success of their relationship is partly due to the fact that they live separately, each in their own flat.
“There are no big words there when deep understanding exists. It’s a great thing that we have each other. That’s something that endures, which implies huge understanding that we have for each other. I trust in her literary taste. If what I wrote is good, a large share of that is down to her. We don’t lie to one another; we tell each other what we think. A man must construct himself, work on himself. It’s really good when you work on yourself in the company of the person with whom you’re in a relationship. Then that work isn’t only more productive, but also yields positive results. It’s a good thing that we both seemed to know, at the very beginning of the relationship, that there was a minefield that we needed to bypass. That’s because when two are connected in a way that fulfills them, then they initiate that good being stronger with everyone.
“We’ve been together more and more in recent years. And we live close to each other. When a person has children, has acquired habits, he can’t simply enter someone’s life, even if it that person is the closest and most beloved to him. That’s why it’s good to have a certain comfort, to respect obligations and the other person’s time. I’ve always enabled myself to feel comfort, but also those around me. All of that is nice and easy with Sanja.”